Bob Schwartz

Tag: digital

The binary and the infinite: What we learn from computers, the I Ching, the Bible and breathing.

We live today and have long lived in what seems to us, at first glance, a binary world. So it seems.

At their most basic, computers are binary machines. Countless combinations of yes/no, on/off decision circuits, adding up, as speed and the number of decisions increase exponentially, to processes that mimic (or exceed) human thought.

The I Ching begins its panoramic presentation of world with a simple binary calculation: either a solid yang line or a broken yin line, combined into eight trigrams and sixty-four hexagrams, from which the entire nature of life and time is profiled, if not actually predicted.

Traditions, such as Taoism, Zen and others, suggest non-duality. That reality exists between those choices we are so attached to. That it is not either/or, not neither/nor. Computers agree. Reduced to each of the billions of digital decisions, binary means nothing. The I Ching reduced to a single line means little. The meanings, all of them, are in the matrix of combinations.

The Bible agrees. It would seem, in its rules and lists, to promote binary behavior. The Ten Commandments are a prime example. But at the literal first moment, if we immerse ourselves in the question of what is between existence and non-existence at creation (contemplation that according to one legendary interpretation drove the Talmudist Ben Zoma crazy), the answer may be everything. The Book of Ecclesiastes, famous for saying that all is ephemeral vapor and listing the binary poles (a time to laugh, a time to weep…), is telling us we live now and ever in the changes in between. Not unlike the I Ching.

Physics has also given up on the binary. Simplistic analysis has given way to acknowledgement that as much as we would like to hold on to a concept of this or that, now or then, the physical world at a foundational level exists in simultaneous multiple states.

Not everything about our organic human lives is binary, but plenty of it is. Ten has its place (fingers, toes), but a distinct second place to two. Two arms and hands, legs and feet, eyes, ears, lungs.

Lungs bring us to breathing, the penultimate binary. Inhale, exhale. There is nothing in between. The failure of that binary leads to the ultimate: life, death. Some do posit an alternative to that binary, a third option. But if we just stick to life/death, what do we learn about either one from this discussion of binary?

Things as they are are not exactly binary, except we make them so. This doesn’t mean that one can think away breathing or death. No inhale/exhale, no life happens. But the values in between—the digital fabric, the I Ching, the space between existence and non-existence, the time between laughing and weeping, the quantum states—are where it is at.

Broken Memory Card Books

Micro SD Card

The micro SD memory card I inserted into my tablet is now broken. Literally. Bent in two places. All the books, music and movies on it cannot be accessed. (How it got that way is another story. Also, all you cloud storage lovers can please be quiet about “This is why cloud storage is so much better.” I like my local electrons.)

This is not a tragedy in so many ways: compared to the rest of the world, the rest of my life, the rest of my digital life. None of the media was lost; it is simply a matter of loading a new card with any of them.

Micro SD cards are very small and delicate, but powerful. The size of thumbnail, this one had 32 GB (gigabyte) of memory. The average book is less than 1 MB (megabyte), a music track around 5 MB. One GB is about 1,000 MB. Not that I had a thousand books on that broken card (more like a few hundred), but I could have.

This is an opportunity. Rather than ask the memory card to remember all sorts of books that I might have loaded because I liked them a little or liked them once or thought them possibly interesting, but never actually got around to any more if at all, I will load the new card slowly and carefully, one by one, starting with those books that have meaning for me that is essential or nearly so. The moment I realized I was going to be starting over, I knew almost exactly which those were. Rather than desert island books, these are my broken memory card books.

There are metaphors about memory here, some pretty interesting ones, and you might have fun playing around with them. I might have time to do that too. But right now, I have put in a new card, and I’m about to load the first book. It won’t last forever as the only book on my tablet, but for now, it will be the center of my reading universe—a status it deserves.